Nice folks really do finish first

Being nice creates a competitive advantage

A friend recently spent five hours in the emergency room. Now, I've never found the emergency room a pleasant experience. What do you expect when people in crisis bump up against a rigid bureaucracy? But my friend decided that while she was there, she was going to be nice to everyone she dealt with.

When she got bumped and had to wait longer for her CAT scan, she chose to speak nicely to the attendant. When the doctor finally saw her, she praised him for his warm hands and kind manner. By the time I arrived to see how she was doing, everyone knew her, and they bent the rules so I could stay and talk longer.

This sort of thing happens in our workplaces, too. Being nice creates a competitive advantage.

All other things equal, people will pick the nice over the not nice. When head count has to be reduced, pleasant, caring and respectful employees are more likely to avoid the ax. Nice gets the edge during the hiring process as well. Don't believe me? Think back to the last time you had a choice among candidates for your team. Given equal skills, I bet you picked the one you perceived as more apt to be kind.

But the skills do have to be there. Niceness does not replace competence. Employees who always remember to bring a cake to work on co-workers' birthdays are most likely very nice people, but if they don't contribute much more than that, they won't last long.

Being nice also requires having a backbone. If your job is to enforce standards but you look the other way in the interest of avoiding conflict, then you aren't doing your job. Some might call you nice, but I'd call you weak and ineffectual -- a doormat.

Even nice people can say no when that's what the job requires. The trick is to be firm, polite and considerate. You'll find that this approach gets you listened to a lot more than being firm and brusque.

"But I'm in IT," you say. "When do I have the opportunity to be nice? People are always demanding things from me, and they want it yesterday. If I take a moment for a few pleasantries, I'm suspected of being a slacker."

My hospitalized friend works in IT, and being pleasant in all her work interactions is one of her primary goals. She has consciously decided that she must say at least one nice thing in every encounter she has, wherever it is. At the hospital, she thanked the attendant for his care, she sympathized with the busy nurse over her schedule, and she complimented the doctor on his skill. Even running a fever of 102, she managed to acknowledge the efforts of the people around her.

She does the same thing at work. Before meetings, she asks people how they are, and then she really pays attention to the answers. After meetings, she notices any and all looks of concern and then follows up with those people, asking whether the meeting accomplished their objectives and (again) really listening to what they say. Then she offers positive suggestions.

When people call her with questions, she doesn't simply give them answers. She gauges whether the caller is rushed, frustrated or both, and then she crafts her answer accordingly; she either responds immediately, or she takes an extra second or two to sympathize and share a chuckle.

As I said, all this is a conscious effort on her part. She told me that she makes it into a game, setting goals for herself: How many people can she make smile in one day? One hundred? Two hundred?

She figured that by the time she left the emergency room that night, her day's count had increased by about 60 people, putting her within reach of a daily record.

Hearing this, I had to smile. Could competitive niceness be the next Olympic sport?

Virginia Robbins is a former CIO who is currently the chief administrative officer responsible for bank operations at the California Bank of Commerce. You can contact her at

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